Things I Wish I Knew: 5 Things To Know When Writing Diverse Characters by Dahlia Adler

You might know Dahlia Adler as an author, a blogger, a Twitter enthusiast (follow her)–or all three! But I know her as an intelligent advocate of marginalized voices and talented writer of diverse stories. She’s our next expert in the “Things I Wish I Knew” series.

Writing diverse characters is a life skill for a writer. It starts with the complex question: how does any writer write about things that they haven’t lived? Writing a diverse cast of characters has always been important, but with the (much needed) push of the We Need Diverse Books campaign among other things I want it to be clear that diversity is not a trend. Diversity reflects the way we live our lives in the real world–we’re all different and everyone deserves to have themselves reflected in what they read.

For advice on writing a diverse cast, please hear from the one and only Dahlia Adler…

5 Things To Know When Writing Diverse Characters

1. Diversity is not a monolith. We hear that phrase a lot, but what does it mean, practically, when writing a character? It means throwing out your preconceived notions of “A character being Black/Latina/gay/blind/Muslim/Jewish etc. means This.” The one thing being marginalized means across the board is that the characters have likely faced microaggressions in their lives, and been made conscious of ways in which they are different from the most privileged. It does not mean they’re resentful, it does not mean they view the ways in which they are marginalized as a shortcoming or something they do not celebrate.

2. Listen and watch how people within a community talk to each other, without your participation. Consume media by that community for that community. That’s where your authenticity is gonna come from more than anywhere else. You can ask someone a million questions about their identity but those things that most strongly resonate are also probably so strongly ingrained, they’d never think to tell you. As an example of this, I always remember seeing an Asian woman on Twitter (I’m sorry, I wish I could remember who!) reacting to the way Jessica on Fresh Off the Boat cut fruit in the pilot episode. It was such a bone-deep familiar thing, but I don’t think it’s the kind of detail you’d ever think to express to someone who asked; you just see it and you know – this was written by someone who Knows who I am.

3. As important as “What must be in the depiction of a marginalized character in order to write it” is “What must not be.” When doing your research, see what those people are sick of seeing, are inaccuracies, are lazy stereotypes, are stories that have been done to death in one way or another. For instance, as a Jewish person, I am very, very tired of the Holocaust being the setting for all of our stories. Yes, it hugely impacted my life. But A) we are people beyond it, and B) it perpetuates a very monolithic idea of Jewish identity as being of Eastern-European origin, when in fact there are huge, important, thriving Jewish communities of North African, Middle-Eastern, Spanish, and other origins. Is it offensive to set a book during the Holocaust? No. But is it perpetuating things about our culture and its place in media many of us would like to stop seeing perpetuated? Yes, and that should be relevant to you if you are using our culture for your story.

4. Don’t throw one community under the bus for another. I see this a lot in queer literature, where there’s a bisexual secondary character who’s some “slutty” foil to lesbians, for example. Don’t do this. If your character creation is reliant on other people looking bad so your character looks good, you are unquestionably writing a weak character.

5. There will never be a unanimous agreement among the writing community about who is permitted to write what, so think long and hard about your values in that conversation, and also the people it most deeply affects. If you’re writing outside your lane, deeply consider what already exists by creators of that group and how you can support them as well. Deeply consider why you have chosen this perspective, and why yours is a necessary voice on it. And most of all, really deeply consider your readers and the importance to them of you doing your research and how you present them. The kids seeing themselves in your books. The kids who may be doing so for the very first time. And let them guide you most of all.

More About Dahlia:

I’m an Associate Editor of mathematics by day, a Copy Editor by night, and I do a whole lot of writing at every spare moment in between. I’ve also been a Production Intern and Editorial Assistant at Simon & Schuster, a Publicity Intern at HarperCollins, and a Fashion Intern at Maxim. (I’m kind of into that whole publishing thing.)

I’m the author of the YA novels Behind the Scenes, Under the Lights, and Just Visiting, and the NA novels Last Will and TestamentRight of First Refusal (March 15, 2016), and Out on Good Behavior (Spring 2016). For information on those books and where you can buy them, check out My Books!

I live in New York City with my husband and our overstuffed bookshelves, and you can find me on Twitter at @MissDahlELama and blogging at B&N Teens, The Daily Dahlia, and YA Misfits.

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15 thoughts on “Things I Wish I Knew: 5 Things To Know When Writing Diverse Characters by Dahlia Adler

  1. Great read! I am African American and my current WIP includes a family of Dominican descent. I’ve been reaching out to my friends from similar backgrounds to take note of their traditions, language nuances, etc. but I like Dahlia’s second tip. That is very important in order to get a richer concept of another culture’s traditions. Listening is key!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. As a White, middle-class, North American, gender-typical woman, I feel two competing forces pulling on me. First, I don’t want all my characters to be white, middle-class, North American, and gender-typical. If I did that, I think I’d be part of the problem. On the other hand, I don’t trust myself to write competently “out of my lane” (I love that phrase!). If my characters are offensive or stereotyped, I’m also part of the problem. That fear tends to send me scurrying back to writing about people just like me. I guess the only solutions are the ones here: read a lot, listen a lot, and get honest feedback from those different from me.

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    1. I feel *exactly* the same way. I do my best writing when I come from a place of my own experiences. For example, all my beta readers have been praising the realistic portrayal of my protagonist in her setting, as a waitress on a restaurant on the Jersey shore–because I *was* a waitress in a restaurant on the Jersey shore. I really value that authenticity and don’t think I could get it without having lived it myself.

      However, I 100% agree that We Need Diverse Books. I saw something on Twitter from a minority writer that said something along the lines of “include us in your stories, but don’t try and tell our stories for us.” Which I’m taking to mean have diverse characters but as someone who hasn’t lived this, don’t delve into the marginalized-specific issues facing these diverse characters? I’m not sure.

      For now I have supporting/minor characters of differing races/religions/sexual orientations in my works-in-progress, but my protagonists are all white American straight females my age or younger than me, raised Catholic, living in New Jersey, New York, or France. 100% within my realm of experience, haha. My hope is that as I get more confident in my writing, I’ll be able to branch out. So perhaps that’s the key–get comfortable writing your own experience first, then as you get more confident, delve into that of others?

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I love that: “Include us in your stories, but don’t try to tell our stories for us.” I’m going to stick that to my wall! My WIP has a protagonist who is much like me, but another important character is of a different ethnicity and orientation. There is no focus on her “difference” – it’s just who she is. I refer to her skin color sometimes, as I refer to everyone’s appearance sometimes, and when her romantic relationship is relevant (as when she is injured and her lover is by her bedside) it comes in, but it’s never a focus. She’s Black, she’s lesbian, she’s witty and sarcastic, she’s a disciplined martial artist, she’s brave and loyal and devious when she needs to be – all of that is just part of who she is.

        I’m definitely going to get a diverse group of readers, once my WIP is ready for that, and specifically ask them if there’s anything there that made them cringe. I’ll especially ask my niece and her wife, and the African American woman in the office next door, for their insights.

        I expect my protagonists will all be White heterosexual women, because of who I am, but I want them to live in a world that includes all kinds of people. Because we do.

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  3. In my current WIP I have a character who is marginalized by society because of a mental condition. Your post struck me that I must add something, make sure I am not utilizing a stereotype. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Great post. I’m completing final edits on my novel and this advice resonated. Since my book has gay characters and I wanted to know more about them, I Googed things related to my story and read a bunch of posts on message boards. Like you said, they talked to each other and I observed them. And boy, did I get a ton of helpful information, much of it completely unexpected.

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  5. I needed this blog so much! Thank you for sharing it. My second novel is about the criminal justice system, social justice and racial relations, particularly in the southern part of the US. Since it’s set in Dallas, Texas, it’s absolutely necessary for me to write outside my own white, Midwestern background to capture the culture of that city.

    Of course, I’m approaching this with a bit of trepidation, but I’m hoping that in the end I can write a book that projects the heart I have to move toward a future where there isn’t so much animosity, complacency, and mistreatment between different races and cultural backgrounds. Wow, even as I type this, I realize what a huge goal that is…but if I can write something that’s even a drop in the bucket toward the right direction, it’ll be worth it.

    All that being said, Justina Ireland posted this link for a service called Sensitivity Readers the other day that I will hopefully use once I have a completed manuscript to ensure that the people I’m aiming to represent aren’t shown in a way that is unintentionally offensive. If anyone else is writing outside their own culture, maybe check it out?

    http://writeinthemargins.org/sensitivity-readers/

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